This column is usually about economic issues. Economics, though, is based on human behavior, so today we’ll look specifically at human behavior and what it might mean for the world economy and politics.
In addition to the Bible, there are two books that best explain human behavior. One is “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Nobel-prize-winning Daniel Kahneman. He aggregates all of the research on a variety of topics: decision-making, bias, perception, cognition, and related topics. For example, people will provide different estimates of Gandhi’s age at death depending on how the question is worded. If they are asked, “Was Gandhi over 100 when he died? How old was he?” they will provide a higher estimate than if they are asked “Was Gandhi under 35 when he died? How old was he?” People routinely make errors in assessing the risk of commercial air travel or being struck by lightning.
The other book is “Spiral Dynamics” by Beck and Cowan. It primarily covers human values of individuals and countries — how they are formed, why they differ, and so forth. If people would read and learn from these two books, we would truly understand each other and have a great chance of bipartisan discussions about economics, politics, and improving the standard of living throughout the world.
Spiral dynamics uses colors for different value categories. The Red/Blue cluster is power-seeking, purposeful, and action-oriented. The Green/Yellow cluster is egalitarian, consensual, and integrative. Individuals and even national cultures can be largely placed in such clusters. In my judgment, Donald Trump, Steve Jobs, Vladimir Putin, and Adam Schiff operate from the Red/Blue cluster.
What are often thought of as the world “elite” – George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, and the European Leadership are largely Green/Yellow, which is actually a “higher” value culture. Having said that, competence and achievement at a lower level system is much better than incompetence or lack of results at a higher level.
Competition and power are the primary mode of interaction by Red/Blue. For Green/Yellow, negotiation and compromise, including concessions, are seen as ideal modes of interaction.
The single biggest geo-political failing of the past 100 years is that Green/Yellow leaders have tried to negotiate with a Red/Blue leaders. If you are Red/Blue, negotiation is seen solely as weakness. This is why Putin so often had the upper hand on President Obama. Green/Yellow often offer concessions as an opening gambit of negotiation, fully expecting the other side will likewise offer a concession gesture, working toward a compromise. To the Red/Blue, the fact that the Green/Yellow offered a concession is interpreted to mean that they are operating from a weaker position, not strong enough to compete. So, the Red/Blue will typically not reciprocate, but accept the concession and push their case even more strongly.
Red/Blue only “hear” strength. This is why when President Obama asserted consequences if the Syrian government breached a “red line,” and we did not impose consequences when they did, all of the Red/Blue world leaders took that as a sign of American weakness, and they increased their efforts to take advantage of that weakness by,
American weakness, and they increased their efforts to take advantage of that weakness. For example, Putin increased his control in the Ukraine, effectively daring the United States to do anything meaningful about that aggression.
One final example of this involves world leaders Putin and Trump. My wife, Amy, will testify that I have spent far too much time studying the 2016 presidential election, including watching the network coverage of every major broadcaster. Without exception, these commentators came to the conclusion that Trump’s victory pleased Putin. Nothing could be further from the truth. Two Red/Blue leaders will see each other as worthy adversaries. Putin tried to sow discord among all Americans, Democrats and Republicans. It didn’t matter to him that he was more successful in disrupting Democrats that time. However, Putin would have much preferred that Hillary Clinton be elected in 2016 and continue the approach used by President Obama. If we could all realize that truth, we would be so much stronger as a country, and much better prepared to face the adversaries we have in the world.